Tag Archives: Steven Spielberg

Top Ten: Movie Title Sequences

Sometimes they are mini-movies in themselves, sometimes they are scene-setting primers for what is to come, and sometimes they are actually the best thing about the movie. Either way, the title sequence is an overlooked art form. Hitchcock would often bring in established artists, like Saul Bass, to create his titles, such importance he placed on them. They are the doorway into the movie, a taste of what is to come. They run, tragically ignored while the audience settles down, stops rustling the damn tubs of popcorn and chatting and generally getting up my nose…

Sorry, wrong blog.

Anyway, for your consideration, my top ten title sequences. Enjoy.

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10. Shaun of the Dead

A short one, this, but the opener for Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead is a little work of genius. It gives us an amusing perspective of everyday life in Britain, before most of the population are transformed into shambling zombies. The question it postulates is very simple; what’s the difference? The fact that Simon Pegg’s Shaun later nips to the Newsagent without noticing the walking dead around him, and you totally believe it, just reinforces the gag.


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9. Vertigo

Most people choose North by Northwest as their favourite Hitchcock title sequence, and while that one is certainly highly influential (see David Fincher’s Panic Room opener) I’ve always preferred Vertigo. Saul Bass created what could be the signature title sequence for all Hitchcock’s movies. The fixation on a woman’s frightened features, turning blood red as the title appears, mixed with Bernard Herrmann’s spooky score, tell you all you need to know about the big man’s favourite pastime; basically, torturing beautiful blondes. Naughty Alfred. The spirals signify James Stewart’s fear of heights, his uncontrollable compulsions, and are also reflected in the hair of Kim Novak.

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8. Contact

Not, strictly speaking, a title sequence at all, but still one of the most effective openers to a movie. Robert Zemeckis’ underrated adaptation of the novel by Carl Sagan immediately shares with us Ellie Arroway’s (Jodie Foster) awe at the expanse of the universe, and the unimaginable possibilities of what may exist out there. For me at least, the sequence truly inspires a sense of wonder, but also a feeling of the crushing loneliness and isolation of our tiny little planet. Is anyone out there listening? Brilliant.


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7. Alien

Ridley Scott ditches Jerry Goldsmith’s original score, keeps it simple, and it works a charm. This is the dark side of Contact’s sequence, in that it perfectly encapsulates the despair, foreboding and the unknown dangers of deep space. The skeletal score, nothing more than a series of strange noises and a random tune, does indeed seem alien. This is a frightening place, very far from home and you feel it. Rarely has a title sequence so perfectly suited its title.

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6. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Steven Spielberg had long wanted to shoot a Busby Berkely style showstopper, and with his second Indiana Jones movie he got the chance. Set on the stage of Club Obi-Wan (one of the series’ many in-jokes), Kate Capshaw’s small scale rendition of Anything Goes, in Cantonese, soon escalates into a massive, glittering dance routine. Yes, it’s a little ridiculous that the tiny stage can suddenly accommodate this huge production, but this is a director indulging himself a little. If Spielberg (all praise his name) wants to give his future wife a huge entrance (snigger), who are we to deny him?

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5. Zombieland

Zombies again, this time from the other side of the pond. It’s ridiculous, it’s gruesome, it’s fun! Yay! Ruben Fleischer’s Metallica backed title sequence couldn’t set you up better for the insanity to follow. The madness of zombie attacks, in ultra slow-motion, is somehow inherently funny and Fleischer milks it for all it’s worth. Add to this the movie’s continuing interaction between the real world and the words onscreen, and you have a good old, undead chuckle fest.

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4. Ed Wood

Tim Burton’s celebration of Hollywood’s worst ever director, Edward D. Wood Jr., had the perfect opening sequence. This is such an affectionate homage to the tacky, B-movie ethics of its subject, that there’s no doubt the man himself would have adored it. Howard Shore’s Theremin laced score is absolutely spot on, and the construction of a miniature Hollywood for the final tracking shot is breathtaking. Burton at his best.


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3. Watchmen

Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the graphic novel opens with this master class in condensing an entire back-story into a short sequence. Giving us the story of this alternative universe’s superheroes, right up until the main movie’s 1980′s setting, we see a history of the 20th century as it may have been with the addition of masked vigilantes and a superhuman. Bob Dylan’s classic folk song makes the perfect accompaniment to the beautiful, slow-motion scene-setting, and every frame looks like it was ripped straight from the pages of a comic book.

Note: Finding an online version of this credit sequence is like finding the Lost Ark of the Covenant. I did have one but it was removed. Seek it out!
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2. Lord of War

Andrew Niccol’s study of a morally conflicted arms dealer (Nicholas Cage) was a fairly average movie, but what it did boast was this outstanding title sequence. Almost a mini-movie in itself, the POV journey of a single bullet from production to ultimate use is original, telling and ends with a depressing suddenness. The CGI already looks a little dated now, but that in no way detracts from the scene’s effectiveness. Very clever opening sequence.


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1. Seven

So many subsequent thrillers have imitated Seven’s dark, twisted title sequence that the power it held at the time may seem somewhat diminished. However, David Fincher’s opener to his second movie is still the Daddy of all title sequences. Unnerving, sinister and bleak, this left you in no doubt as to what you had in store. Part of its genius is that many aspects of what you are seeing are not revealed in their meaning until the second viewing, when you realise who it is you are watching. Coupled with a totally stripped down version of Nine Inch Nails’ Closer, this is the mind of a lunatic at work and play. Chilling.


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Favourite Movie Scenes: Raiders of the Lost Ark

The Movie

Raiders of the Lost Ark is my all time favourite celluloid experience, bar none. There’s no other movie like it. Any collaboration between George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had a high chance of providing something special, and although none of the sequels lived up to the magic of this first crack of the whip, Raiders was a shining nugget of movie gold. There are certainly other movies that have connected with me more on an emotional or intellectual level, but no film quite gives me the pure chills, the goosebumps, that I get from Raiders of the Lost Ark. No other movie so effortlessly reminds me why I love cinema quite like this one. And no scene is a better example of why than the opening scene.

The Scene

South America, 1936. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and his companion Satipo (Alfred Molina) have located a remote, hidden temple. We’ve already had a taste of what kind of character this guy in the hat is after he’s seen off an armed traitor in his group, using just a bullwhip. Classy.

The two men enter the temple…

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Why I Love It

The Idea

What an opening scene for a movie. What a way for a character to introduce himself. What a piece of pure, unpretentious, fluid cinema. There are few directors so adept at making the ridiculous seem plausible like Steven Spielberg, which is what made him the perfect choice to make Raiders of the Lost Ark. The idea was to bring back the old Saturday morning adventure serials, with their cliff-hanger endings and preposterous scrapes. In this, they succeeded and then some. The opening scene immediately drops us into Indiana’s life at its most exciting, almost as if we have just caught the end of last week’s episode.

The Icky Factor

Spielberg understands that as well as ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’, audiences also enjoy the odd ‘yuk!’ The Indiana Jones movies are crawling (literally) with moments such as these. Having already given us an army of tarantulas, we are then treated to the nasty fate of Dr Jones’ predecessor, Forrestal. He even makes squelchy noises as his decomposing head turns Indiana’s way. Yes!

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Walking the Traps

A bunch of faces which shoot poison darts? No problem. Just don’t tread on the darker, diamond shaped stones. This should seem like a breeze when you think about it, but thanks to Spielberg’s slow tracking shot along the wall of faces, and John William’s steadily building score, it seems more like the worst ever drink driving test.

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The Intimate Zoom

Having reached the Golden Idol, Indy stops for a moment. With Williams’ music reaching a crescendo, Spielberg takes time for a slow zoom onto the Archaeologist and his prize. For Indiana Jones at that moment, there is nothing in the world but he and the Idol. It’s the perfect little moment of character illustration. Then, we pull out again and it’s back to business. Gives me a shiver every time.

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Ford Falls Over

The boulder rolling down toward Jones has long since become an iconic image, but what I love about this part is the fact that, having done 10 takes of Harrison Ford outrunning the huge fibreglass ball, Spielberg kept the one take where Ford fell over. It gives the scene a little sprinkle of authenticity, and I’m sure the panic on Ford’s face is genuine.

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Trivia

There is a continuity error at the beginning of the scene. As Indiana Jones and Satipo enter the temple, they pass through a huge cobweb. When Jones leans downwards to walk through the web, there are spiders clearly visible on his back. Cut to a shot from behind the pair, and we can see that Indy’s back is now clear. Then Satipo notices spiders on Indy’s back! Magic South American disappearing tarantulas or Continuity Editor’s day off?

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It doesn’t matter, of course. One small continuity error can’t stop this being my favourite scene from my favourite movie. Long may it give me goosebumps and bring a cheesy smile to my face!


Top Five: Original Movie Soundtracks

They say the best movie soundtracks are the ones that you don’t notice are there. They feature music that enhances a film but never tries to compete for your attention. That’s all well and good, but personally I like the soundtracks that do both; the music that you find yourself humming later on and then buy because it is good enough to survive on its own.

I’ve been listening to soundtracks for as long as I’ve been watching movies, and that’s a long time. Sometimes I’ll listen because the music is excellent in its own right, sometimes because it’s just great music to daydream to, and sometimes because a particular score is the perfect inspiration for the writing of a screenplay. I once wrote an entire script around the music to a single scene in Aliens. Thanks for that, Mr James Horner.

Selecting a paltry five soundtracks from the plethora I admire was no easy task but eventually, after much hand-wringing and begging for forgiveness from the aforementioned James Horner, I settled on my Top Five. These are the soundtracks which I believe best represent the art in all its forms; as beautiful music in its own right, as the perfect enhancement to the story and visuals, and as examples of craftsmen at the top of their game.

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Alien – Jerry Goldsmith

1979

Long considered one of the most successful and enduring movie composers of all time, Jerry Goldsmith has been around since the Fifties and continues to work sporadically today. The story of his music for Ridley Scott’s Alien is one of disagreements and disappointments, but there is no denying the beauty of his work for the classic Sci-Fi/Horror movie. Hired by Scott at the ‘suggestion’ of 20th Century Fox, Goldsmith and the director clearly had differing ideas about how the movie should be scored. As a result, much of the music Goldsmith wrote was omitted from the final cut of Alien. The romantic, sweeping and eerie theme originally written was rejected by Scott and replaced by the composer’s second effort; a simple series of unnerving sounds which, it must be said, are extremely effective. Scott also chose to use a pre-existing piece of classical music for the end credits, further alienating Goldsmith. The original score is available in its entirety, but what remains within the film is deeply unsettling, beautiful and dark. Elements of his original opening theme survive in scenes where the Nostromo lands and takes off, making the process of landing a spaceship seem like an adventure in itself. And, taking the title of the movie to heart, Goldsmith creates ugly, unnatural sounds whenever the creature appears. Don’t ask me what they are, I prefer not knowing.

See also: Chinatown, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Omen.

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Edward Scissorhands – Danny Elfman

1990

The fourth collaboration between composer Elfman and director Tim Burton, Edward Scissorhands remains one of the most influential scores of the last twenty years. Elfman began his career in film by scoring his older brother Richard’s movie, Forbidden Zone, and soon after began his creative relationship with Burton working on Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Utilising a 79 piece orchestra and a choir, the music for Edward Scissorhands is rich, dreamlike and perfectly encapsulates the bittersweet themes of Burton’s most personal film to date. In addition, Elfman creates a hilarious tick-tock theme for the bland suburbia into which Edward appears, and a signature bombastic march which touches on the near insanity of the inventor (Vincent Price) and his bizarre machines. Elfman and Burton represent a perfect understanding between director and composer, and even if Burton’s work isn’t always accomplished, Elfman’s usually is. They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery, and it is a measure of this soundtrack’s success that its music-box chimes and soulful choral voices have become the signature sound for fairy tales and Chanel advertisements ever since. It has even been adapted into a ballet.

See also: Midnight Run, Batman Returns and Big Fish.

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The Fog – John Carpenter

1980

John Carpenter has always been a curious rarity as a filmmaker. Not only does he direct and, more often than not, write his movies but he also composes and performs the soundtracks. Not even Spielberg can do that (all praise His name). So, as sole creator of every component, Carpenter’s synth-based scores have always been the perfect accompaniments to the action on the screen. Often using a heartbeat thump as the base, Carpenter’s soundtracks heighten the tension considerably. His most famous is probably Halloween, but my personal favourite has always been The Fog. Carpenter uses very little in enhancing the eerie atmosphere of his coastal ghost story, but every fog horn sound and every light stoke of piano key burrows deep under the skin, priming the viewer for the experience. The thumping sound as the fog rolls into Antonio Bay mimics the pounding on doors, the noise which announces the spectres before they strike. It is one of the greatest horror movie scores of all time, by a composer who fully understands the genre. Carpenter’s band, The Coup De Villes, also provided the somewhat cheesy tunes which play on the radio, or serve as jingles for the KAB Radio station.

See also: Halloween, Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China.

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Jaws – John Williams

1975

If you mention Jaws in conversation, one of the first things that will come to mind is the theme tune. Dum dum dum dum, etc and so forth. Effective and iconic as that theme is, it sometimes results in the rest of the soundtrack being overlooked. This is a shame because, beyond the ominous strings which more than compensate for the killer shark’s rather rubbery presence, Jaws enjoys one of the most accomplished scores in cinema history. John Williams has been working in the industry for half a century, and is responsible for some of cinema’s most recognisable theme tunes, including Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Jaws marked Williams’ first collaboration with Spielberg, a collaboration that has now spanned 35 years and 19 movies. By turns haunting, joyous, foreboding and terrifying, Jaws is a master class in writing music to accentuate the moving image. Williams’ strings make the ocean seem filled with dread, he quietly adds atmosphere to Quint’s tale of the USS Indianapolis, and the cheerful sea shanty which accompanies the Orca’s doomed pursuit of the Great White strikes a gloriously upbeat note in the midst of the peril. It was the perfect start to such a successful collaboration.

See also: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars and Schindler’s List.

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The Mission – Ennio Morricone

1986

The chances are there is at least one Ennio Morricone score that you love, and probably more. Morricone has been producing music for film for over 50 years, across a diverse range of genre and language. He gained wide acclaim for his work with Sergio Leone on the Spaghetti Westerns of the Sixties and managed to write a score for John Carpenter’s The Thing which sounded like a Carpenter score. However, when I hear the name Morricone I immediately think of one movie: The Mission. Roland Joffé’s story of Spanish Jesuit missionaries in 18th century South America, and their struggles with the Spanish and Portuguese colonial governments, was graced with some of the most beautiful music ever composed for film. Morricone mixes classical Baroque orchestra, South American Guaraní instruments, Spanish guitars and haunting choirs to magnificent and often heartbreaking effect. The emotional punch of Morricone’s work even filters down to the simple tune which Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) plays on his oboe, a tune later reprised with full orchestra for the track On Earth As It Is In Heaven, which is breathtaking.

See also: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Untouchables and Once Upon a Time in America.

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The Also Rans:  Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – James Horner, The Bourne Identity – John Powell, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – Warren Ellis and Nick Cave, Psycho – Bernard Herrmann, Solaris – Cliff Martinez.

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My Golden Age of Movie Posters

Note: Click on all the images to see them full size.

If you love movies as much as I do, there’s a good chance that you love movie posters too. You probably have them on your walls, use one as your desktop wallpaper, and perhaps even collect movie posters like some people collect Picassos. I have a few myself, and why not? Some movie posters truly are works of art. Or at least, they used to be. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps I’ve got another case of that rose-tinted nostalgia-vision, but it seems that the hand-crafted movie poster has become an endangered species.

Growing up in the eighties, I spent my childhood in awe of the great movie poster illustrators, the artists whose work embellished the films I worshipped. I was a budding artist as well as a movie fanatic, and the eighties may have been the heyday of the movie poster artisan. It was, I see now, the perfect time for me to grow up in. Part of the excitement of any new movie, particularly those by the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, was that first glimpse of the new artwork by Drew Struzan or Richard Amsel. These were artists who created posters upon which their signature was redundant. You knew who had created it simply by the style of the illustrations. They were in a league of their own, and in my opinion will remain so.

Star Wars reinvigorated the movie poster, accentuating the concept of the one sheet as a collectible piece of artwork. That’s not to say movie posters weren’t collectibles before then but, as it did with so many other things, Star Wars set the bar a little higher. The movie poster was suddenly romantic and energetic again, and the best designs for Star Wars ably captured the film’s wonder, sweep and spectacle. The posters were not just promotional tools, but important artistic creations in their own right. Perhaps, the most famous is the image of heroic Luke Skywalker, complete with accentuated physique, holding his lightsaber aloft, with the giant head of Darth Vader in the stars behind him. Known as Style A, this was a poster design interpreted first by Tom Jung (who would create posters for all three of the original Star Wars trilogy) and then by The Brothers Hildebrandt, with dramatically differing styles.

Drew Struzan’s poster for the film, in collaboration with airbrush artist Charles White III, was a nostalgic piece harkening back to the Saturday morning serials upon which the movie was based. It has a torn poster on plywood effect that only came about because the original design had no room for the movie credits. The romantic design ethic continued with The Empire Strikes Back. Roger Kastel illustrated the classic poster for the Star Wars sequel (see below), having previously created the iconic image for Jaws. Again, it is an evocative illustration encompassing a montage of scenes and characters. The fantasy and romance pours from the poster and the colours beautifully reflect those of the movie. Tom Jung also created his own poster for the movie, featuring a striding Darth Vader holding out his hand, a pose reflecting the movie’s famous and oft-quoted line, ‘I am your father’.

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Richard Amstel produced two wonderful illustrations for Raiders of the Lost Ark, having earlier worked on the poster for Flash Gordon (above). The Indiana Jones series, a natural successor to the romantic nostalgia of Star Wars, followed suit in utilising great artists to render promotional materials. Amsel’s work on Raiders still ranks among my favourites of all time (see his alternative version at the top of this page). The beautifully realised image of Harrison Ford lifting out of the sandstone (a mix of watercolour, acrylic, airbrush and coloured pencils) is not only iconic, but sets the tone and setting of the film perfectly. Again, Drew Struzan was given the chance to create his own design for the film, for its 10th anniversary re-release. Sadly, Richard Amsel died in 1985, only 38 old. Struzan then became the go-to guy for the Indiana Jones movies, as well as many others connected with Spielberg and Lucas, such as the Back to the Future trilogy and the Star Wars prequels.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that there were many great artists working during this period. John Alvin created the famous poster for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial which portrays the fingers of the alien and Elliot touching. The idea paid homage to Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (suggested by Spielberg). Alvin was also responsible for the paws emerging from a box for Gremlins and the original poster for Blade Runner. Bob Peak created the art for each Star Trek movie poster, throughout the eighties. They, and many more like them, are the reason why movie memorabilia from that period is among the most sought after.

These days things are different. The ease and speed at which a poster can be knocked together using Photoshop means beautifully hand-rendered movie posters are a far rarer beast. To the men signing the cheques, it’s far cheaper to hire someone to sew together a couple of head shots or do a photo montage on the computer. I understand it, this is a business after all, but there was something about those old posters that fired the imagination and stoked the sense of wonder as you awaited your first screening of the next celluloid dream. They produced the kind of artwork that cannot be achieved with a mouse and keyboard, any more than an Impressionist masterpiece can be. The industry no longer seems to need the artists the way it once did, and it is always sad when an art form becomes surplus to requirements.

Struzan is still working, however rarely, and still producing immaculately hand-drawn posters. Hellboy was graced with his work along with, naturally, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. However, the golden age of he and his peers is long gone. At forty, I may grumble about my age, but I will always be grateful to have spent my formative years during the heyday of these unsung artistic giants. And I will always remember how I was just as influenced and inspired by the artistry they used to promote the movies as I was by the movies themselves. Thank you, guys.

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Drew Struzan’s website

A wonderful site dedicated to the work of Richard Amsel

Tom Jung’s page at IMP Awards

John Alvin’s website